Tuesday, 31 January 2023

The Twilight Zone - The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine

The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine was the fourth episode of the first season of The Twilight Zone and it’s always been one of my favourites. It was directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Rod Serling and first went to air on October 23, 1959.

Barbara Jean Trenton (Ida Lupino) was, briefly, a major movie star. But that was many years ago. Her career took off quickly and crashed just as quickly. She is now a middle-aged recluse. She spends her time watching her own old movies on 16mm in a private projection room in her mansion.

While Barbara Jean Trenton, the character played by Ida Lupino, clearly has a kinship with Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard and while the initial setup resembles that of Billy Wilder’s film it is quite wrong to see The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine as merely a television rip-off of Sunset Boulevard. The story does not follow the same trajectory, and there are differences in emphasis. And while it isn’t immediately obvious at first by the end of the story it has become very definitely a Twilight Zone story.

It has the essential Twilight Zone feel - everything seems just like everyday reality until suddenly it’s not everyday reality any more.

In The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine there’s quite a bit of focus on the essential voyeurism of cinema. The twist here is that it’s self-voyeurism. Barbara Jean Trenton has no interest in other people’s lives. She has no curiosity about other people. The subject of her voyeurism is Barbara Jean Trenton. Not Barbara Jean Trenton the woman, but Barbara Jean Trenton the movie star. She watches herself obsessively on the screen. A further twist is that Barbara Jean Trenton the movie star no longer exists. This is voyeurism focused on the past.

And of course the viewer is watching Barbara Jean watching herself.

The twist at the end was later borrowed (or homaged if you prefer) by a certain very famous film director but to say any more would constitute a spoiler. It goes without saying that the film director in question was hailed as a genius for this ending, but The Twilight Zone did it first.

This is Rod Serling’s writing at its best. It packs an emotional punch but without sentimentality and without the viewer feeling manipulated. Serling could be guilty of sentimentality and manipulation but when he avoided those pitfalls he could come up with some top-notch scripts. And this is a wonderfully subtle script.

Martin Balsam is excellent as Barbara Jean’s loyal long-suffering friend and agent Danny Weiss.

But the success of this episode depends entirely on Lupino’s performance. She’s superb. She wisely avoids self-pity. Barbara Jean has isolated herself entirely from the contemporary world but we don’t despise or pity her. She has made a choice. She is happier living in the past. She knows that the modern world would destroy her. Lupino gives her a certain dignity.

While Sunset Boulevard was a rather scathing look at Hollywood and what it does to people The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine has a different tone. It certainly acknowledges that Hollywood uses people, makes them stars and then discards them but Serling’s story lacks Sunset Boulevard’s venom. Barbara Jean’s fate is sad, and yet there’s no question that for a brief moment Hollywood really did give her everything she wanted. It gave her complete happiness. Would she have been better off never having experienced her brief moment of fame and fulfilment? If happiness is fleeting would we really be better off without it? Would we really be better off living safe predictable conventional lives with no insane highs and no insane lows?

Barbara Jean would undoubtedly say that the highs are worth the price one has to pay. She knows that she was a star, and no-one can ever take that away from her.

So rather than the bleakness and venom of Sunset Boulevard we get a bitter-sweet tone here, and the combination of Serling’s writing and Lupino’s acting makes it work.

I’ve now seen The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine four times and it remains one of my favourite Twilight Zone moments. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, 8 January 2023

three more Outer Limits season 1 episodes

Three more Outer Limits season 1 episodes from 1964. They’re not among the best episodes but even lesser episodes of this series are pretty good and pretty interesting.

Second Chance

Second Chance was written by Sonya Roberts and Lou Morheim and directed by Paul Stanley. It went to air in Match 1964.

A group of people are drawn to a carnival spaceship ride. They don’t know why. It’s just a silly fake spaceship. They get quite a surprise when the fake spacecraft actually lifts off and they find themselves in deep space. The carnival ride has been transformed into a real spaceship by an alien from a distant planet.

The people on the ride are a motley assortment and it’s difficult to understand why the alien wanted them aboard. That will however gradually become clear.

This is yet another example of The Outer Limits giving the alien invasion idea a major twist. And it’s another example of the series treating aliens as beings who might not necessarily be hostile. The idea of a carnival ride turning into a nightmare ride through outer space is very cool.

And, as so often in this series, there’s more emphasis on character than you’ll find in most TV sci-fi. The plot is mostly a device to allow the characters to learn something about themselves.

The Children of Spider County

Written by Anthony Lawrence, directed by Leonard J. Horn, screened February 1964.

In The Children of Spider County the Space Security agency gets involved when four young men disappear. There are extraordinary links between these four men that suggest a possibility that seems insane, but the links just can’t be explained by coincidence and Space Security takes the matter seriously. There’s also a fifth young man, Ethan Wechsler, and he’s facing a murder charge.

This episode illustrates some of the weaknesses of this series - cheesy makeup and iffy special effects. But The Outer Limits never worried about stuff like that. If they felt that the monsters needed to be shown, they’d show them, and if they looked cheesy the producers felt that the scripts would be good enough to compensate. And usually they were.

This episode works because it takes the alien invasion idea and gives it lots of interesting twists, and lots of ambiguity. Cleverly, the ambiguities are never fully resolved. There’s some slightly cringe-inducing speechifying about accepting differences but there are some genuine moral and emotional dilemmas.

There’s some action, with Ethan and his girlfriend on the run from the cops, and maybe from the aliens, and maybe from Space Security. And again there’s ambiguity - maybe it would be better if the alien caught them, and maybe it wouldn’t.

Not one of the great Outer Limits episodes but even the less-great episodes of this series tended to be very good and very thoughtful.

Moonstone

Written by Stephen Lord, directed by Gerd Oswald, screened February 1964.

Moonstone
begins, naturally enough, on the Moon. American astronauts discover an artifact which is clearly not natural. At first they assume the Russians must be behind it but it soon becomes apparent that this small white sphere contains a number of alien intelligences. Are these aliens friendly or hostile? They seem benevolent. The aliens have a problem, and it’s a big problem. And it becomes a problem for the crew of the lunar mission as well. The commander of the lunar mission, General Stocker, will have to make a tough decision. He had to do that once before and it had consequences for which his second-in-command, Major Anderson, has never forgiven him.

It’s that decision made by General Stocker in the past that provides the main thematic interest of this episode. It’s all about decisions and decisions that have to be made by both the human and alien characters. The aliens simply function as a catalyst for major personal upheavals involving General Stocker and Major Anderson and the mission’s chief scientist, Professor Diana Brice (Ruth Roman). There’s a romantic drama between the general and Diana Brice but Major Anderson seems to be mixed up in it as well.

It’s not very profound but it is a bit more than just a space adventure yarn.

The special effects are very cheap-looking but the aliens are rather cool. These are aliens who really look profoundly alien, rather than being guys in rubber suits or cheesy makeup.

The acting is good enough to make the characters at least a bit more than cardboard cutouts.

Not a great episode but it’s solid enough.

Final Thoughts

I've described these as lesser episodes but I think they're all worth watching.

I’ve reviewed a number of other episodes of The Outer Limits, including The Sixth Finger, Don't Open Till Doomsday and ZZZZZ and The Man Who Was Never Born and O.B.I.T.

Monday, 2 January 2023

highlights of 2022 cult TV viewing

It's tie to once again look back over the year just gone. I was almost going to say that this hasn't really been a bumper year for me as far as cult television is concerned, but having a quick scan through my 2022 posts I find that in fact I discovered quite a few exciting series that were new to me.

My most exciting cult television find in 2022 was undoubtedly the 1983 first season of Simon & Simon, a delightfully quirky and charming private eye series.

My other exciting discovery was the Japanese anime TV series Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex. It was made in 2002 so it's a bit outside the normal time frame for this blog but it's a terrific science fiction series.

There was also the 1957 cop drama Decoy, the first cop series entirely focused on the work of a policewoman. Not an action series but intelligent, sensitive and occasionally provocative. In fact it's bet series ever made about a female cop.

And this was the year I discovered Miami Vice. This is my kind of TV show - style, style and more style.

So overall, not such a bad year.

Thursday, 1 December 2022

The Avengers - Emma Peel in colour, part one

I think that almost everyone would agree that the colour Emma Peel episodes of The Avengers are not quite as good as the black-and-white ones. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that they’re not quite as consistent, but the best of them are as good as any of the black-and-white episodes.

Here are four episodes that received the coveted four-bowlers rating on the excellent The Avengers Forever website. Do they deserve those ratings? On the whole I think I do.

Who’s Who???

Who’s Who??? was written by Philip Levene. One of the most popular ideas in 1960s/1970s action/adventure spy series was the double idea - having someone impersonate the hero and impersonating him so perfectly that the double can’t be distinguished from the real hero. It’s an idea that I intensely dislike. I think it’s lazy writing. Who’s Who??? however manages to give the idea some genuinely clever spins. Instead of doubles we have the villains using a machine that can transfer the mind and the soul of one person into another person’s body. So in this case instead of having two Steeds and two Emmas we have enemy agents Basil (Freddie Jones) and Lola (Patricia Haines) who now inhabit the bodies of Steed and Mrs Peel while Steed and Mrs Peel inhabit the bodies of Basil and Lola.

And (in a very nice touch) we have Freddie Jones and Patricia Haines doing a very creditable job of capturing Steed and Emma’s personalities and mannerisms while Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg behave convincingly like Basil and Lola. They still look like Steed and Mrs Peel but they behave in a totally different manner. It also means we get to see Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg kissing frequently and Patrick Macnee patting Diana Rigg’s bottom but it’s OK because we know that they’re actually Basil and Lola.

The purpose of the mind-swap is to use Basil and Lola, posing as Steed and Emma, to break the British floral spy network - a spy network consisting of agents using flowers as code names. The headquarters of the floral network (with an enormous Union Jack covering an entire wall and half the ceiling) is another amusing touch, as is the pompous major in charge of the network.

The end result is much cleverer and more amusing than the straightforward hackneyed double trope. And it gives Macnee and Rigg a chance to play totally different roles - Basil and Lola have none of the sophistication of Steed and Mrs Peel. They’re low-class hoods and both Macnee and Rigg have fun with that. Diana Rigg is particularly good as the gun-chewing rather tarty Lola.

The brain-swap idea was far from original but I don’t think its ever been done with more style and wit. Brilliant stuff.

The Hidden Tiger

The Hidden Tiger was also written by Philip Levene, one of the best of the writers of The Avengers. It begins with two men torn to pieces, apparently by big cats. Judging by the mayhem inflicted, most likely lions or tigers. So Steed turns to big game hunter Major Nesbit, the first of the many wildly and delightfully eccentric characters who populate this episode.

After several more unfortunates are gored to death the trail leads Steed to P.U.R.R.R., the Philanthropic Union for the Rescue, Relief and Recuperation of Cats. But they only rescue domestic cats and whatever killed those people had to be much much bigger. A domestic at couldn’t kill someone, could it? P.U.R.R.R. is run by a Mr Cheshire (played with some wonderfully odd mannerisms by legendary comic Ronnie Barker). Also working for P.U.R.R.R. are a Dr Manx and a young lady named Angora, played deliciously by a very feline Gabrielle Drake (of UFO fame).

The cat-themed sets are wonderfully witty.

One could fill pages with all the cat-themed double entendres in this episode. As Mrs Peel remarks at one stage, "Pussies galore!” Diana Rigg also does a remarkably sexy 
purr.

This episode has exactly the right mix of wit and cleverness. The plot is outlandish and has the right touch of the surreal. It really is great stuff.

Murdersville

Murdersville was written by Brian Clemens. And it’s a bit of a mixed bag. 

It starts superbly. Little-Storping-in-the-Swuff is the perfect, idyllic, picturesque little English village.It’s full of loveable eccentric rustics. It has a cosy pub. It’s the sort of place to which anyone would love to retire. And then, completely out of the blue, we witness a brutal murder. The villagers witness the murder, and take no notice whatsoever. Immediately we know that we’re in the bizarre surreal world of The Avengers. And all this happens within the first few minutes. It’s a brilliant start to the episode.

Little-Storping seems like such a wonderful place in which to spend one’s retirement that Mrs Peel’s childhood friend Paul has decided to do just that. Mrs Peel drives him to the village to help him settle in. And then we get another touch of the bizarre. Two of the loveable village rustics go on a destructive rampage, smashing all of Paul’s most treasured possessions.

Paul’s manservant Forbes disappears. Mrs Peel finds a body in the woods. And Paul disappears. Mrs Peel decides it’s time to call the police but it soon becomes obvious to her that there’s something very sinister going on and that she shouldn’t trust anyone in Little Storping. 

This is where the plot starts to get a little wonky. What Mrs Peel should do is quite obvious - she should take off in her car to go and fetch the cavalry. But she doesn’t. The plot requires her to behave irrationally and to make things easy for the bad guys. Patrick Macnee only makes brief appearances in this episode so it may be that Brian Clemens had to find a way to keep Mrs Peel in the village on her own even though it makes no sense.

This episode showcases a side of Mrs Peel that we haven’t seen before. We’ve seen her in tight spots before and we’ve seen her frightened before but we’ve never before seen her in a cold vengeful rage. We’ve also never seen her kill in a cold-blooded ruthless way. But in this episode that’s exactly what she does. We see her display raw emotion. This is definitely a major plus.

We also get to see her in a chastity belt, which we definitely haven’t seen before. 

Her telephone call to Steed is a wonderful comedy moment. There’s some delicious dialogue. There’s a pie fight. The episode is a weird mix of light-hearted zaniness, genuine terror and deep emotion. And mostly the disparate elements do come together.

There’s an enormous amount to enjoy here if you can ignore some really glaring plot holes. A very good episode that just misses out on greatness due to the wonkiness of the plot.

Epic

Epic was written by Brian Clemens. Some people consider this to be one of the best-ever Avengers episodes and some consider it to be one of the worst.

Has-been silent era film director Z.Z. von Schnerk (Kenneth J. Warren) has decided to make a comeback. He still has his original stars from the silent era, Stewart Kirby (Peter Wyngarde) and Damita Syn (Isa Miranda) under contract but he needs a new face and he’d decided on Mrs Peel. He’s going to make her a star. Posthumously. The film will be The Destruction of Emma Peel and it will climax with a real-life death scene. He has Mrs Peel kidnapped and she finds that she’s in the middle of a movie but she hasn’t read the script. She gets shot a couple of times and when she discovers that the guns are loaded with blanks she treats the whole thing as a joke. Until she finds a real corpse on the set. Not all the guns in this are loaded with blanks.

This is the surrealism of The Avengers pushed to an extreme. It’s also an extreme exercise in metafiction. Z.Z. von Schnerk and his faded stars can no longer tell the difference between movies and reality. But of course there’s no reality here because this is The Avengers and it’s a TV series so it’s not reality either. And that’s how Diana Rigg plays it - as if she wants the audience to be aware that this is a TV show about a man making a movie, but the movie he is making is essentially a movie about movies, packed with references to other movies.

The surrealism really works in Epic. It’s not just clever but at times genuinely disturbing and spooky (such as the wedding and funeral scenes). But then at the same time it’s all a joke. Mrs Peel isn’t sure whether she’s supposed to be scared or amused. The viewer isn’t sure whether to be scared for her or just amused.

The metafictional touches continue into the very clever tag sequence. Are we watching Mrs Peel and Steed or are we watching Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg on the set of The Avengers?

This episode has been criticised for being soulless but that misses the point. Any genuine emotion would have spoilt the effect. Epic draws attention to its own artificiality. These are not real people. It’s all just make-believe. Mrs Peel mimicking the MGM lion is a joke within a joke. The fact that Mrs Peel makes no serious attempt to escape from the movie studio is not a weakness in the plot. It’s just another part of the joke. The fact that the plot of the episode is nonsensical is part of the joke.

I think I have to come down on the side of the people who love this episode. It revels in its own archness. At times it’s almost too clever for its own good but somehow it gets away with it because we’re supposed to notice the ostentatious cleverness. Kenneth J. Warren (very obviously channelling Erich von Stroheim) and Peter Wyngarde are outrageous and delightful. Epic is great fun.

Final Thoughts

All four episodes are in their own ways Avengers classics. Murdersville has its flaws but its strengths easily make up for them. Epic is an episode that will always divide fans but I adore it. Great stuff.

Monday, 31 October 2022

Thriller - Brian Clemens’ favourite episodes

I’ve finally made my way to the end of the 1970s British Brian Clemens anthology series Thriller. It’s taken me eight years to watch all 43 episodes. That might sound a bit ominous. It might suggest that I’m not a big fan of this series. Nothing could be further from the truth. I adored this series when I first saw it many years ago and I adored rewatching it. I’ve watched it slowly because I like to do that with anthology series, especially ones of which I’m particularly fond. I just like to return to them every now and then when I feel the need for reliable spooky entertainment.

And given that each episode is feature length and of course completely standalone it’s a perfectly feasible way to approach such a series.

Having reached the end I’ve decided to revisit the five episodes of which Clemens himself was most proud. Since I haven’t seen these particular episodes for seven or eight years that also seems to me to be a feasible idea.

Thriller occasionally dabbled in the supernatural. It did this very seldom, but it did do it occasionally. Which was actually a rather clever move on Clemens’ part - when you watch a Thriller episode you might be confident that everything will have a rational explanation but you can never discount the possibility that Clemens might unexpectedly throw something supernatural at you.

Someone at the Top of the Stairs

Someone at the Top of the Stairs was the third episode of the first season.

Chrissie Morton (Donna Mills) and Gillian Pemberton (Judy Carne) are two broke art students in London. They think they’ve had a fabulous stroke of good fortune when they find a room in a charming old Victorian rooming house. The rent is ridiculously cheap.

The rooming house of course turns out to be a nightmare.

At first it’s just very subtle creepy things. Odd sounds. One of Chrissie’s bras disappears. The other guests seem to laugh at inappropriate things. Various little things just don’t seem quite right. Then Chrissie discovers the peephole in the bathroom.

Chrissie’s unease grows, as does her frustration that Gillian refuses to take her fears seriously. She does find a boyfriend, Gary, but he doesn’t take her fears seriously either.

The viewer knows that there’s definitely something wrong in this house but we don’t really know much more than the two girls know. Like Chrissie we just slowly grow more uneasy.

Director John Sichel handles things carefully. He avoids anything too obvious. He’s content to let the creepiness develop through hints and through the accumulation of very trivial things, things that taken in isolation would not even be disturbing but they become unsettling when taken together.

Clemens of course wrote the script and it’s a fine effort which builds to a satisfying payoff. It’s satisfying because at the end we have to admit that this really is what all those hints have been pointing towards.

The two lead actresses, Donna Mills and Judy Carne, are effective because they really do come across as two very ordinary girls. Chrissie is the one who gets worried but she’s not hysterical. She’s reacting in a perfectly understandable way. She sees a pattern of little things adding up to something that might be sinister. Gillian’s scepticism is equally plausible. That same pattern of little things seems to her to be very unlikely to be anything to get worried over. They’re not showy performances but they work.

Someone at the Top of the Stairs is pretty effective stuff. Highly recommended.

An Echo of Theresa

An Echo of Theresa is the fourth episode of the first season. American businessman Brad Hunter (Paul Burke) has taken his wife Suzy (Polly Bergen) to London for a second honeymoon. It’s a business trip as well - an English businessman named Trasker wants to negotiate an important deal with him.

Brad starts doing strange things. He calls Suzy Theresa by mistake, and then claims that he’s never met anyone called Theresa. Although he’s never been to London he insists that a cabbie take him to an obscure street to find an old red-brick block of flats. That building was demolished years earlier - how could he possibly know it even existed? He becomes agitated an aggressive. He writes “I love Theresa” on a postcard.

Hardly surprisingly Suzy insists that he sees a psychiatrist pronto.

The psychiatrist discovers that there are two things Brad is sure of. Firstly, that he knows Theresa. Secondly, that he has never met Theresa. He knows her from Vienna, but he has never been to Vienna, in fact he has never been to Europe.

Suzy has a friend at the American Embassy who suggests that this might be a case for Matthew Earp (Dinsdale Landen) . Matthew Earp is a private detective. He claims to be not just a very good a private detective but a magnificent one and he charges accordingly for his services. And he really is as good as he thinks he is.

There are those who find this episode confusing. I have no idea why. Most of what is going on is perfectly obvious very early on. There’s simply no other plausible explanation and there are abundant and very obvious clues. Of course we still don’t know exactly how such an outlandish situation arose and we don’t know how it’s going to be resolved but we know enough for the story to lose much of its punch.

It’s played out rather oddly. Paul Burke and Polly Bergen play it very straight (and Paul Burke is very effective as a man caught in a bewildering situation) while the other main characters are more off-the-wall and seem like they would have been more at home in a different story. And Dinsdale Landen plays Matthew Earp with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Ultimately it’s Dinsdale Landen’s gloriously over-ripe performance that makes this one worth watching.

An Echo of Theresa is interesting and at times very clever, but it’s not a complete success.

One Deadly Owner

One Deadly Owner was the fourth episode of the second season. It went to air in February 1974.

Fashion model Helen Cook (Donna Mills) buts herself a new car - a Rolls-Royce. It has only had one careful owner. Her boyfriend Peter (Jeremy Brett) thinks the car is a foolish extravagance. The odd things is that Helen feel that it rather than her choosing the car, it chose her.

The car seems to have a mind of its own. It takes her places she doesn’t want to go. And then she finds the ear-ring in the boot. She tracks down the previous owner, a very rich man named Jacey (Laurence Payne). She’s sure the ear-ring belonged to Jacey’s wife. His wife left him a few months earlier. Helen becomes convinced that there’s some mystery involving the wife and she feels compelled to solve the mystery.

Most of the things that happen early on are not really frightening or even particularly disturbing - they’re just puzzling. It’s almost as if Helen is being led on. Led on by the car.

Now I know what you’re thinking - that this haunted car story sounds a bit like John Carpenter’s Christine, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name. But Brian Clemens came up with the idea of a possessed car almost a decade before King. And they are two quite different stories.

In this outing we know from the start that there’s something vaguely supernatural (or paranormal) going on. We also know that a crime has been committed, and there are multiple plausible suspects. It’s both a haunted car story and a whodunit and it works equally well both ways.

One of this episode’s major assets is that Donna Mills and Jeremy Brett work so well together. Their relationship is convincing and both give fine performances.

The fact that it’s a rather low-key story works in its favour. We’re slowly drawn in, just the way Helen Cook is slowly drawn in.

This is an extremely good episode.

A Coffin for the Bride

A Coffin for the Bride opened the third season. We know what is going on right from the start. A ex-merchant seaman (played by Michael Jayston) marries rich middle-aged women and then drowns them in the bathtub (after they have made wills in his favour of course). The murders are successfully passed off as accidents but a lawyer named Mason (Michael Gwynn) is convinced that murder is indeed what they were. Mason is just a very ordinary solicitor but he’s intelligent and once he gets an idea into his head he pursues it grimly. And he does not intend to forget this particular murderer.

The killer, calling himself Mark Walker, has now found himself in a very curious position. He has fallen for a woman. Really fallen for her. A young pretty woman named Stella (Helen Mirren). This time he really wants the woman, and not for the purposes of murder or profit.

But of course he still has a living to make, and murder is his business. He already has his next victim picked out, a rich widow named Angela. I can’t tell you any more without risking spoilers.

The twist ending is outlandish but justly celebrated - there are hints earlier on and when the big reveal comes you realise that of course that had to be the explanation. Which is of course the hallmark of good writing.

It’s not just the ending that makes this one notable. The performances by Helen Mirren and Michael Gwynn are superb but it’s Michael Jayston who really impresses. Mark Walker is a monster but he has odd vulnerabilities. They certainly don’t justify his actions but they do suggest that there are things in his past that have made him into a monster.

Arthur English is a delight as the friendly barman Freddy.

A bravura effort from scriptwriter Clemens and from a fine cast make this deservedly one of the most fondly remembered episodes of the entire series.

I'm the Girl He Wants to Kill

I'm the Girl He Wants to Kill is the second episode of season three. This is a pure suspense episode - we know the killer’s identity right from the start. But the police don’t know. They think they do, but they don’t.

It starts with the murder of a woman. Then there’s a second murder. They’re clearly the work of a serial killer. Ann Rogers, an American working in London, saw the killer. Unfortunately she can’t identify him from the police mug shots file.

She does however fall for Mark (Tony Selby), the Detective-Sergeant in charge of the case, and Mark falls for her. A few weeks later she sees the killer in the street, she recognises him and he recognises her. She realises immediately that he’s going to try to kill her. She returns to her office and as usual she has to work late. There’s nobody else in the building, apart from the security guard. But the killer is inside the building. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game which occupies the whole of the second half of the episode. 

To makes things even more exciting the killer has locked the building so there seems to be no escape for Ann.

Robert Lang plays the killer and he’s a wonderful choice. He’s just one of those scary sinister-looking actors. Julie Sommars is very good as Ann - she’s convincingly terrified but she’s also quick-witted.

A deserted office building proves to be a fine setting for such a suspense story. Everything looks so harmless, except that there’s a psycho running loose.

The tension builds up and up and when you think it’s all over, it isn’t.

This is an effective Brian Clemens script and it’s perfectly executed by director Shaun O’Riordan.

This is a classic woman-in-peril story which works beautifully.

Final Thoughts

I’m not totally sold on An Echo of Theresa but the other four Brian Clemens favourites can certainly be very highly recommended.

Sunday, 2 October 2022

Hannay (1988-89)

Hannay is a thirteen-episode (spread over two seasons) TV series featuring the hero of John Buchan’s classic thrillers, Richard Hannay. The series serves as a kind of prequel to The 39 Steps.

The episodes really have nothing to do with Buchan, apart from borrowing his hero. They’re all original stories. If you’re expecting the stories to be in the same class as Buchan’s novels you’ll be disappointed.

The stories are all over the place as far as tone is concerned. The best episodes are very lightweight and rely to an embarrassing degree on unlikely narrow escapes carried out by methods that are both silly and corny. These stories are much more like a cross between an Edwardian Boys’ Own Adventure Paper tale and an episode of Ripping Yarns. But they are fun in their own way. Other episodes are much more humourless and try to be serious. Many episodes are not spy tales at all but mysteries, some good while others are not so good.

The series does have one huge asset - Robert Powell as Hannay. He played Hannay in the 1970s movie version of The 39 Steps and he was by far the best thing about that film. In fact I’d go so far as to say that Robert Powell is the definitive screen Richard Hannay. Even better than Robert Donat in Hitchcock’s 1935 movie (which I rate as one of the ten best movies ever made).

At least he should be a huge asset. Unfortunately his performances are uncharacteristically restrained. A bit too restrained. If you’re going to put Robert Powell in an adventure series then you expect him to go totally over-the-top. You expect him to sparkle. But he doesn’t.

I can’t help thinking this series would have been much much better had it been made fifteen years earlier. For starters a younger more vigorous Robert Powell would have been a lot more fun. And it would have featured fewer ludicrously anachronistic social attitudes.

The biggest problem with this series is that not a single character behaves as you would expect people to behave in 1912. They’re all 1980s people wearing period costume. All the political, social and cultural attitudes are pure 1980s.

The characters we’re supposed to find sympathetic never express a single thought that is at variance with the orthodoxies of late 1980s social attitudes. This has the effect of making them seem self-satisfied and at the same time lacking in any actual personality. The characters we’re supposed to find unsympathetic come across as cardboard cut-out villains. Richard Hannay himself has no real personality whatsoever.

The TV series was shot entirely on videotape. Even the location shooting (of which there’s quite a bit) was shot on videotape. In spite of this looks it looks quite handsome. This is British TV at the tail end of its golden age so the costumes are terrific and it takes advantage of the abundance of superb character actors in Britain at that time.

Episode Guide

The first episode, The Fellowship of the Black Stone, opens with Hannay getting shot in South Africa. He is left for dead and is found clutching a black stone. His would-be assassin was notorious German spy Count von Schwabing (Gavin Richards). And a fine melodrama villain he turns out to be. He doesn’t actually twirl his moustache before carrying out dastardly deeds but you know that he’d like to.

On the ship carrying him back to Britain Hannay encounters the Earl of Haslemere (David Waller) and the earl’s daughter, the Lady Anne. Hannay is charmed by Lady Anne, to say the least.

Hannay had worked for the British Secret Service but had left their employ some years earlier. He finds himself caught up in a spy drama anyway, with the Germans hatching dastardly plots and poor Hannay getting himself repeatedly captured, tortured and threatened with certain death. Fortunately, although the German secret service is very efficient their agents have never been taught to tie a knot properly. Hannay keeps escaping by slipping out of his bonds.

The highlight of this episode is Charles Gray as a senior Scotland Yard man.

It’s all breathless stuff with a reasonable amount of action. A fine episode.

In A Point of Honour Hannay meets Lady Madrigal Fitzjames on a train. They get off at the wrong station and then arrive at the wrong country house. The staff assume they are the honeymooning couple whose arrival they were expecting. Hannay and Madrigal decide to have a bit of fun. They pretend they really are the honeymooners.

As it happens there’s an immensely valuable diamond necklace sitting in the safe. And things will soon get complicated and dangerous.

Historical anachronisms are always a problem in series such as this. I have to say that in this episode I just didn’t buy Lady Madrigal’s behaviour. The story takes place shortly before the First World War. We assume it’s around 1912. I don’t believe any well brought up lady at that time would have risked her reputation so recklessly. It would have been social suicide and would have wrecked any chance she might have of making an even halfway respectable marriage. Had she been one of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s then I might have found it plausible. But not in 1912.

It’s still an amusing, clever and entertaining story with a certain amount of charm.

In Voyage into Fear Hannay is accosted in an art gallery by a young girl who insists that there is a dangerous man who is trying to kidnap her. She insists that Hannay should pretend to be her father, to get her out of the gallery and back home safely. Hannay is inclined to think it’s all nonsense until he realises that the girl might be telling the truth.

Then things start to go badly wrong, Hannay and the girl are drugged and they wake up on board a ship, having absolutely no idea where they are. This is a really fun episode.

Death With Due Notice is a murder mystery story. Several men have received anonymous threatening letters, all in the form of quotations from Shakespeare. A routine episode that doesn’t really have the right flavour.

Act of Riot is one of the worst pieces of television I have ever seen in my life. A clumsy embarrassingly obvious script, stodgy direction, heavy-handed political messaging, atrocious acting, leaden pacing, a total lack of action, dull and humourless. Robert Powell is clearly bored and uninterested and I can’t say that I blame him.

The Hazard of the Die is better. At least it’s a spy story. The wife of a Cabinet Minister loses heavily at the casino at Monte Carlo and is trapped into espionage. The first problem is that there really aren’t enough plot twists. It’s a bit predictable. The second problem is a total lack of action. This is an adventure series. We’d like to get some adventure. It all falls just a bit flat.

So the first season of six episodes is a mixed bag. The first three are terrific fun. The next three are pretty dull.

The second season opens with Coup de Grace. Hannay gets involved with a woman and he’s charmed by her, and he meets charismatic hard-driving businessman and gambler Sir Marcus Leonard (Anthony Valentine). And Hannay gets caught in the middle. With Anthony Valentine as guest star you assume you’re going to be in for some fun and Valentine certainly delivers the goods. What’s strange is that Robert Powell allows himself to be totally overshadowed by Valentine. It’s a crime plot rather than an espionage or adventure tale but it’s a decent story.

The series gets right back on track with The Terrors of the Earth. Not only is it a spy story, it’s a totally outrageous spy tale. There’s actually some action and Hannay gets to be much more energetic and pro-active than usual. And Robert Powell’s performance has some zest. A very entertaining episode.

In Double Jeopardy a rich dying man entrusts Hannay with some diamonds. Hannay is to pass them on to a man named Desmond Leigh but only on certain conditions. This puts Hannay in a very awkward spot. Leigh has failed to meet those conditions but he has a young wife. Then the plot gets really convoluted with a murder and a kidnapping and Hannay under suspicion and all manner of conspiracies. The plot might be convoluted but it’s quite nicely constructed with some fine twists. A very good episode.

The Good Samaritan gets off to a promising start. Hannay is in central Europe, he’s on a train and he’s just met a beautiful mysterious woman. There’s a shady oilman of indeterminate nationality. And oh yeah, there’s a corpse. And a vanishing lady. It’s hard to go wrong with those ingredients. This is a terrific episode which movies along at break-neck pace.

In That Rough Music an old friend of Hannay’s dies and leaves his estate and fortune to his half-African daughter. A totally unconvincing story told in a very clumsy manner.

The Confidence Man is a major improvement. Hannay comes to the rescue of a music-hall proprietress menaced by an extortion racket. Hannay’s initial attempt to help ends in disaster. He realises he’s going to have to be much cleverer and he turns out to be a rather goof confidence trickster, all naturally in a good cause. A lightweight episode but it moves along briskly and it’s fun.

Say the Bells of Shoreditch involves a disappearing bridegroom. The young man works for his father who runs a shipping and insurance empire. There’s something strange going on in the company with all sorts of rumours flying around.

The jilted bride is Hannay’s goddaughter so he feels compelled to find the missing young man. Hannay discovers an ingenious and dangerous conspiracy.

Final Thoughts

Most of the episodes are quite entertaining but the series just doesn’t quite ring true. It’s very very uneven. The bad episodes are absolutely terrible but the good ones are very good. And the good episodes do outnumber the bad.

The biggest problem is that the series can’t decide if it wants to be fun or if it wants to be serious. Hannay is a slight disappointment but it’s still worth a look.

Network have released the complete series on DVD.

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Mediterranean Caper (It Takes a Thief tie-in novel #2)

Published in 1969, Mediterranean Caper was the second TV tie-in novel based on the very successful 1968-1970 American TV spy series It Takes a Thief.

It was written by Gil Brewer, much better remembered as one of the great hardboiled/noir writers of the 1950s.

If you’ve never seen the TV series (and if you haven’t you should because it’s terrific) Al Mundy is a cat burglar facing a long prison sentence. One of those shadowy US intelligence agencies offers him a deal - he can stay out of prison if he agrees to steal for the government. He finds himself, very reluctantly, working as a spy.

He doesn’t like it. The SIA (the agency in question) is pretty ruthless. They offered him his freedom but he isn’t free at all. He’s under permanent house arrest and he has to do whatever they tell him to do. Sometimes he thinks prison would have been better - criminals have better ethical standards than intelligence agencies. But he has no choice.

Looking at it another way, he has no skills other than being an extremely accomplished thief and at least he gets to do what he does best. And his missions always seem to bring him in contact with beautiful glamorous women. Al likes beautiful glamorous women. And they tend to like him.

In this case he has to steal a coded formula and he has to rescue a Soviet defector named Marina. Her defection went wrong and she’s fallen into the hands of the KGB. She’s being held somewhere in Marseilles. And the Red Chinese are after her as well.

And, as luck would have it, this Soviet defector happens to be a beautiful glamorous woman.

This mission turns out to be a very easy one. Too easy. He gets the formula but he loses it. He gets the girl but she’s the wrong girl.

It gets worse. Not only has Marina been captured, the bad guys have Miss Agnew as well. Miss Agnew is Al’s parole officer but she also works for SIA. She’s more or less his keeper. Al has a thing for Miss Agnew. His feelings are not reciprocated but that doesn’t worry Al. He’s sure that eventually his charm will win her over. But now she’s in the hands of a madman, the fiendish Red Chinese spymaster Hu Yang who has an obsession with American women. Al has a fair idea what Hu Yang plans to do to Miss Agnew and it isn’t a pretty thought.

TV tie-in novels were often written by authors who had only seen the original outline for the series in question and maybe the first couple of episodes. Sometimes they hadn’t seen a single episode. As a result the tie-in novels often have a slightly different feel compared to the TV series. Sometimes they’re a bit sleazier. That’s not the case here. But this novel does have more of a Bond movie feel than the series. Hu Yang is very much a Bond villain.

Brewer certainly does know how to tell an action-packed tale.

The Al Mundy of the TV series is a charming rogue and Brewer gets that part right. The character in the book is recognisable as the character from the TV series.

Brewer also captures the essential element of the series - Al is very unhappy about working for SIA. Al’s moral standards are flexible but he’s basically a decent guy. He likes stealing but he’s not keen on violence unless he has no alternative. In this novel Al really doesn’t care about the secret formula. He’s not unpatriotic but he’s not overly patriotic either. Politics bores and disgusts him. He does however very much dislike the idea of pretty girls falling into the hands of lust-crazed madmen. His main motivations are to do what he has to do to avoid getting sent back to prison and to rescue the two girls. If the SIA ends up getting that formula then that’s fine but Al doesn’t care.

Brewer was a noir writer so the idea of writing about a man forced into spying against his will would have had some appeal to him.

Mediterranean Caper is lightweight but it’s fun and breezy. Highly recommended, especially if you’re a fan of the TV show.

I reviewed the first season of It Takes a Thief a while back.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of Gil Brewer’s noir novels, The Three-Way Split and The Vengeful Virgin.